Naomi Osaka’s strength coach on why she’s a one-of-a-kind athlete: ‘I’m learning every day from her’

Nakamura Yutaka has been a strength and conditioning in tennis for 20 years and has been on ‘team Naomi’ since mid-2020. He spoke to exclusively. 

By Nick McCarvel
Picture by 2020 Getty Images

“My team is like my family,” Naomi Osaka said as she held the Australian Open winner’s trophy in February of 2021, her fourth Grand Slam title. “This one is for [them].”

As Osaka has risen to be one of the most powerful forces in modern women’s tennis, the Japanese player has been careful to build just the right team around her.

Since June of 2020, that has included Nakamura Yutaka, a well-known face in tennis who has worked with the likes of major champions and Olympic medallists including Jennifer Capriati, Maria Sharapova and more.

It’s an Olympic medal that Osaka, one of the biggest sporting stars in Japan, would like to add to her CV, with the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 underway on 23 July.

“Her desire to get better every day... She's only 23, but she has won four Slams already,” Nakamura said in an April interview. I think she has a great potential. She's such great athlete and as a great person to work with. It's a great challenge for me even [though] I've done this job for 20 years. I'm still learning every day from her.”

Nakamura has a big responsibility on his hands: Keep one of the best tennis players in the world in tip-top shape, while also trying to help Osaka become faster, stronger and keep her endurance up for intense three-set matches.

“First of all, her [tennis] IQ on the court is great. She's [also] very powerful and athletic,” Nakamura said. “Her physicality; her foundation of strength and conditioning is getting better. ... She's becoming more of a threat on the tour and [I think] she can be a force, she can be dominating for the next... many, many years to come.”

The duo teamed up amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, as pro tennis was not played from March until late July. The silver lining, Nakamura said, was to spend extra time focusing on Osaka’s training, body care and goals for moving forward.

The women’s tennis calendar normally lasts January through to October.

Obviously she told me she wants to win more Slams,” Nakamura said. “But she's very straightforward and she's very determined and committed. And the will that she presented and expressed... I was really impressed. I just follow with that path. I’m not here to change her mindset or change her physicality; my role is to add to all that with the experience that I have.”

Nakamura, who grew up in Tokyo, is especially proud to be working with a Japanese athlete is who is going for a gold medal at a home Olympics.

“It is an honour to represent Japan,” Nakamura said. “Although I was born and raised in Japan, since I graduated from high school in Japan, I moved to the U.S. So it’s been quite a long time. It’s such an honour and privilege to be part of [the Olympics]. And so I'm very proud of Naomi, but also kind of proud of myself to be in this position. I'm really looking forward to that.”

Here, a conversation with Nakamura, edited only for clarity and length.

Nakamura on Naomi Osaka's strengths Yutaka, you and Naomi teamed up in the midst of the pandemic lockdown. How did that help strengthen your work with her?

Nakamura Yutaka: I think the pandemic helped for me to get to know Naomi. We [also] had a great almost like two to three months to prepare for the U.S. Open. And then also not just to prepare for the U.S. Open, but to get to know the capacity of her physicality. Usually in tennis, as a strength and conditioning coach, we don't have [much] time. But [Naomi] and I had a chunk of time that we can really go into each day and each week and each month to see how strong and how fast and how durable she is. I was really pushing her a lot on and off the court. She did very well. [Now] I know her capacity and I know her strength. A couple of years ago, when she won her first title at Indian Wells, people were saying her movement had gotten so much better. When you look at speed, stamina and strength, how do you balance those three things for Naomi?

Nakamura: She's a very strong athlete, and it's amazing to see how strong she is in the gym. Because of her strength, she's very good at accelerating and decelerating change direction on the court. That's why she moves very well [and] she's so explosive on the court. Then also, you don't see her tired when she goes into the third set or [at] the end of the tournament. So I think she's the whole package: She's very good at strength and movement and also endurance. What would people be most surprised about when it comes to Naomi the athlete?

Nakamura: I think people would be surprised on, first of all, how strong she is, like what she does for dead lifts and squats. I believe she's one of the strongest girls on the tour. Then also her endurance and her stamina, like what she does for intervals. She can sustain the level for such a long time... maybe two hours, which not many players can do.

'I haven't seen an athlete pushing that hard in a long time' You wrote last year that out of all of the athletes you’ve worked with, it’s Naomi who can train the hardest. What do you mean by that? Naomi is part of a new generation. She's very powerful. She grew up [watching] Serena, Venus and Sharapova. And so she has a higher standard than the previous players than [we’ve seen] only because of the many players she’s looked up to.

During the pandemic, we had a chunk of the time... so I was not afraid to push her all the way to the end, because if we're not preparing for the tournament, [we were] almost preparing to see how much we can push just to get to know her body. She also wanted to see [for] herself. I think that's where we really matched. haven't seen an athlete pushing that hard for such a long time in a long period of time. Tennis is a bit different from other sports at the Olympics. How do you view it?

Nakamura: I think for the tennis players we do have a four opportunities a year competing at the Slams. But this year we have a bonus, which is the Olympics. I think Naomi is really, really looking forward to competing at the Olympics and wants to do well at the Olympics. What is the team atmosphere – there is a ‘family’ feel with you, coach Wim Fissette and ‘Nana’, Naomi’s physio.

Nakamura: The team is behind her and she understands and appreciates that. And now we feel like team is really forming together to keep us united as one behind Naomi.

A homecoming for Nakamura, too You grew up in Japan, in Tokyo. How much are you looking forward to being at the Olympics yourself?

Nakamura: I'm very excited. I was born and raised in Japan. I believe the Tokyo Olympics, back in 1964 but now for me, and I think for many of us, it is like, you know, a once in the lifetime thing. I've been talking to my parents a lot. You know, I’m one of the luckiest men alive, to participate in the Olympics and be part of team Naomi. I’m really excited for this event. Naomi plays and represents Japan, but also has spent a lot of her life in the U.S. How do the Japanese people view her? And support her?

Nakamura: They love her. She's so unique. I believe the Japanese people really appreciate that she is carrying the flag [in tennis]: She's playing for Japan. It's not just only like she has a chance to win the gold and all of that, but I think but she's great at representing Japan. I think that's what the Japanese are most proud of.


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